Yuri crashes through the undergrowth, stomping on bright purple lilies and thorny vines alike in his haste to outrun the echoing sounds of his grandfather calling after him.
He saw the knowing—pitying—looks on the others’ faces. He knows they think of him as a child, even after all this time. Well, if they want to treat him as a child, then he’ll sulk like a child.
He kicks an old stump coated in spiderwebs, trying to release some of the bubbling in his chest. An elderly faerie tumbles from the hole on top, her piping voice unintelligible but scolding.
It cools his fury a bit. “Sorry,” Yuri murmurs, although he knows she can’t understand him anyway.
Her tirade continues, and her luna moth wings flutter as she picks up a tiny pebble and hurls it at him, bouncing uselessly off the toe of his boot. Yuri turns, hooking a left deeper into the forest to put more distance between himself and the village.
It’s not the first time he’s been defeated—not even the hundredth—but he was certain he had it this time. Sure, Victor had beaten him at archery, and Yuuri had outclassed him in the dance competitions, but Yuri had been practicing his fencing. He was sure he had a chance.
And yet somehow he ended up in third place. Third!
His grandfather came to Yuri after, beaming as always, congratulating him as if he were the champion, and Yuri just couldn’t listen to that speech one more time.
You’re only human, Yurachka. A human placing second to an elf is no mean feat.
Yuri winds up, ready to kick another tree at the thought, but stops himself. Who knows what might be living in this one. Disturbing a faerie is one thing, but far more vicious creatures can reside in the forests of the fae realm. One can never know on whose door they might be knocking.
He pauses to take stock of where he is. The trees around him definitely look like trees, and the rocks are rocks, but… nothing strikes him as particularly familiar. He’s somewhere new, then.
Yuri looks back the way he came and is relieved to see a track marked out in his wake—trampled brush and disturbed leaves that mark where he had stormed away. It might not lead him the whole way back to the village, but it will point him in the right direction later. He’s not ready to go back yet.
A strange cry floats through the woods like a feather, catching on Yuri’s ear. He stops rustling the fallen leaves beneath his feet and holds still, as Victor had once taught him to do on a hunt. He holds in even his breath, focusing on the unusual sound.
At first he thinks it must be bird song, but a bird unlike any he’s heard before. The cry doesn’t follow a pattern, but jumps around—soft and sweet, then oddly discordant. It could be anything. It could be dangerous, even, and Yuri probably ought to keep away, but— He’s curious.
Besides, those pointy-eared bastards in the village would have to give him some respect if he confronted a deadly beast and survived.
He pushes up the hill, toward the noise, stopping on the way only to grab a thick branch from the ground in case he needs a blunt weapon. He wishes he hadn’t just thrown his sword down when he left the arena about now.
As he gets closer, Yuri starts to lower his impromptu staff. He can hear the strings now, more like a lute or a harp than a creature, though he knows some things in the forest can mimic music—or even voices. He can’t drop his guard completely, but expects it’s more likely he’s stumbled across Georgi’s Nest of Lovelorn Sadness than a new species of dragon.
Yuri stops just beyond where the music is the strongest, but finds... nothing. Peering through the trees toward the sound, he spots no scales or feathers or moaning elves. He scours the forest floor, the plants, and the air itself, until at last he spots it—a shimmer, barely visible at the corner of his eye, only when he turns his head just right.
Intrigued, he edges toward the spot; as he gets closer, it resolves into focus. An oval of air hangs in the midst of the forest, exactly like all the air around it, and yet different. It’s like looking at a silk shirt and finding a patch of satin woven into the collar. It wasn’t immediately obvious, because the view inside the oval is also of rocks and trees, but it’s not the same forest—not at all. This other forest opens up into a wide, grassy plain and a stand of boulders taller than Yuri.
And perched at the top of the tallest boulder is a boy.
Not an elf—a human boy, like Yuri, but not like him at all. His build is stockier, even less fae, and his hair is dark and cut short, where Yuri’s is fair and hangs past his shoulders. He’s seated on the rock with his legs crossed, looking down at the wooden instrument in his lap.
Yuri recognizes the guitar, now that he sees it. Christophe’s pet human had come with one, like an accessory, and for a while the elves had found it very fashionable. Yuri himself had never cared for the sound of it much, but then, it hadn’t sounded like this.
Masume’s technique on guitar was like any other stringed instrument—he plucked. The sound from this guitar is raw, primal—like the cry of a wounded beast. It screams pain, outrage, and despair, and Yuri loves it.
He creeps closer to the portal, dropping down onto all fours as he approaches the edge of the shimmer. He crouches, grasping at fistfuls of leaves and brush, and watches the human on the other side warily, but the other boy never looks up from the chestnut curves of the instrument in his lap. Yuri drops down to his haunches, then sits back on the dirt. A twig snaps beneath his butt, and he freezes, but still the human boy is oblivious.
Yuri knows little about portals. Long ago, he sat in on some early magical classes alongside much younger elven children. He faintly remembers enjoying them, although a lot of the theory stuff was boring. He’d seen what the adults around him could do with magic.
But the practical lessons had begun, and Yuri had looked on as Guang Hong persuaded a flower to bloom using sweet words and Minami lit a small spark with a snap of his fingers, and Yuri’s own gestures had yielded—nothing. Only when Yuri was already red in the face with effort had Phichit swanned over, his hamster familiar perched in his hair, and sweetly informed Yuri that humans had no magical aptitude.
Yuri had nearly decked him.
After that, he saw no point in attending magical lectures, focusing his attention instead on fencing, archery, and dance. Now, he feels his first twinge of regret at that decision. He has no idea if the portal goes both ways or only one—can the other boy see him at all? Could he hear him? It doesn’t seem so, but Yuri decides not to risk it, staying low and well away from the edges of the shimmer so he won’t disrupt the musician.
As the song stretches on, Yuri gradually relaxes, letting the broad trunk of a tree prop him up. He picks a couple small mushrooms from the corpse of another tree in arm’s reach and eats them raw when hunger begins to claw at his stomach, not knowing when his next meal might come along.
The music transitions from angry to mournful, and Yuri’s heart aches at the sound. It makes him miss—something. He frowns deeply and plucks a piece of grass, cutting it into segments with his thumb nail. What is he thinking of? He can’t remember, and yet tears are threatening hot at the corners of his eyes.
Suddenly, the song stops. Without thinking, Yuri cries out in protest.
Through the portal, the musician’s head snaps up. Eyes of deep brown meet Yuri’s across the barrier of magic in the air, and they connect like flint striking stone. The boy scrambles back on his rock, startled, and Yuri leaps to his feet.
Without a second thought, he runs, startling deer and rabbits from their hiding holes at the hard fall of his feet on the soft ground. He doesn’t stop until he reaches the edge of the village.
Days pass, filled as always with lessons and practice, meals with his grandfather, and long hours stretched out in one of the village’s many hammocks between the towering trees the elves reside in. Still, Yuri can’t shake what he saw in the woods.
There are no humans in the village these days, aside from himself and his grandfather. Christophe and Masume left weeks ago, off on another journey, and they rarely get visitors here. Thinking back on that glimpse he had into the other realm, Yuri’s haunted by more than the song.
He falls asleep one afternoon, drifting on the gentle breeze as the summer sunlight filters through the highest branches. His eyes fall closed without intent, and seconds later he wakes, sitting up so abruptly that his hammock shakes, nearly upending him into a long fall. The other boy’s fierce eyes flash through his thoughts, creeping into even his dreams, and Yuri decides he can’t avoid it any more.
He needs to go back to the woods. He needs to find the portal.
It takes longer than he expected to retrace his steps. Yuri had stormed into the forest in a rage that first day, and he’d wandered into unfamiliar territory. Without that motivating frustration, it’s hard for him to gauge how far to walk or in what direction. Frustrated, he drops onto a nearby tree stump to think. All around him are trees, trees, and more trees. There are no signs available to helpfully point him to where he was, no landmarks among the wood. It looks like any other area of the forest.
At the base of a nearby oak, a gnome pops his head from a hole and scowls at Yuri, offended at the much larger creature trespassing in his yard, but Yuri ignores his gruff scolding.
He sounds like a miniature King Yakov, Yuri thinks, smirking at the thought. Looks like him, too. More hair, though.
As the gnome pauses to gather his breath, Yuri hears a familiar sound. He straightens. That’s it; there’s no doubt about it. It’s the same song he heard before. Yuri shoots to his feet, knocking the gnome back on its rear in shock, and dashes off into the forest, running toward the sound.
His Elven teachers have always scolded him for the way he runs, but he can be quiet when he wants to. It’s just that right now, he doesn’t care. Yuri crashes through the underbrush like a panicked stag, leaping over obstacles rather than navigating around them, and even with all his training he’s winded when he skids to a halt at arms’ length from the shimmer.
The dark-haired boy’s fingers fumble on the guitar strings, his eyes widening. He’s not looking down this time, but right at Yuri, and Yuri knows instantly that the other boy was looking for him, that he’s been brought back here on purpose.
Aside from that brief stumble at Yuri’s appearance, the music continues undeterred, and Yuri simply listens. The rough, melancholic cry of the instrument is the same, and Yuri wonders where it comes from—not on a technical level. He understands the play of fingers on strings. Instead, he wants to know where it comes from within. What is it in this tune that calls to him so much?
After too short a time, the boy’s playing stops. He stays on his rock with the guitar in his lap, watching Yuri. When Yuri doesn’t move, he nods. “I’m Otabek,” he says, in a voice that’s rougher than Yuri expected.
Yuri scowls. Stupid. “You shouldn’t have said that. Giving your name out to fae creatures is dangerous.”
“Are you going to use it to harm me?” Otabek asks. He doesn’t sound ruffled or afraid, only curious.
Yuri shakes his head. “I can’t,” he says, then tucks his hair behind one ear, turning his head to show proof. “I’m human, like you. But still—don’t give your name out to someone you saw in a portal.”
The corner of Otabek’s mouth twitches into something that almost a smile and he ducks his head. “I guess I’m a fool then. I gave you my name, but it never occurred to me that you might be human.”
“Really?” In the village, it seems so obvious. Others are always smiling indulgently about how clumsy or naive Yuri is—the little human child, living among near-immortals. He’s never imagined one of his own kind might see him differently.
“When I saw you the first time,” Otabek says, hopping down from his rock to step closer, “I thought you had the eyes of someone who had seen millennia. You looked… otherworldly.”
Otherworldly. The word claws directly at Yuri’s deepest wishes, his need to be equal to the magical beings around him, to fit in despite the interspecies barriers. He takes a step closer to the portal, intrigued.
“What else did you think?” he asks, and Otabek’s little smile stretches.
They talk, not just about Yuri, but about music and hobbies and each of their worlds. Yuri tells Otabek about his competitions with the elves, preening a little when Otabek is visibly impressed despite Yuri’s losses, and Otabek tells Yuri about his village, his family, the silly little games that other human teenagers play amongst themselves in his realm.
It never occurred to Yuri before that he might be missing out on something by not having human friends.
Eventually, the sky on Otabek’s side of the barrier transitions from blue to violet, streaked with pink and orange. The light dims, and Otabek begins to shift, looking back over his shoulder from where he’s sitting. They’ve both come to mirror the other, cross-legged on the ground, a breath away from the portal.
“I should go,” Otabek says with obvious reluctance. “My family will worry if I’m not back at dark.”
It’s still light out in Yuri’s world, and he’s not ready to end the conversation, but he knows his grandfather, too, would be upset if it were Yuri staying out too late.
“Alright,” Yuri says. He gets up from his spot, dusting dirt from his pants as Otabek mirrors his movement again. He still has so much more to ask. “Do you want to meet again?” Yuri blurts out, taking the risk, and Otabek smiles again—that lightening of his eyes, that slight upward tilt to his stern mouth.
“Yes,” Otabek agrees. “Absolutely.”
One meeting becomes two, then ten. Time passes differently between the two realms, which makes getting together challenging and inconsistent. On some occasions, they’ll meet two days in a row, and it will be morning on both sides of the portal. Other times, Yuri will arrive in the morning to find it’s already dark in the human world, and Otabek will inform him that Yuri has been missing for weeks.
Does it bother you when you can’t find me? Yuri had asked, because he needed to know.
Yes, Otabek admitted, ducking his head, Very much so.
It’s flattering for Yuri to be missed, but at the same time the situation is unfair for Otabek. Barely any time seems to have gone by for Yuri, but on Otabek’s side of the portal, the seasons have changed twice. While the baby birds are still in their nests in Yuri’s home, Otabek now wears a thick wool overcoat and sits in a pile of windswept, decaying leaves.
He’s brought his guitar again, but he seems distracted. He plucks at the strings, and Yuri shifts, uncomfortable with this sudden change.
“Is something wrong?” Yuri asks. “Would you rather do something else today?” Their options are limited, as neither has been willing to be the first to break the barrier, but they sometimes forego the music to simply talk for hours. Occasionally, Yuri dances.
Otabek sighs and lays the guitar down across his lap, leaning back against the boulder Yuri first saw him on. “There’s a war coming,” he says.
“Isn’t there always?” The fae realm isn’t immune to battles and conflicts, but this is one of the things Yuri has learned about humans—they seem to be constantly killing each other.
“Not always,” Otabek replies, taking Yuri’s questions in stride. “And especially not here—or at least, it’s close to here. The town militia has been warning everyone to lock up, stay inside… they expect troops to arrive soon.”
Otabek is always subdued, but his quiet today has a new tinge of sadness.
“I may not get to see you,” Otabek says. He’s staring down at the guitar in his lap, not meeting Yuri’s eyes. “When the soldiers come, things may get - bad. And… I’m worried they could find the portal.”
Yuri hadn’t even thought about that—human soldiers flooding into the fae realms. He knows without a doubt that the elves would be victorious in that type of attack, but still. It would be dangerous. And of course Otabek is in danger as well. “Things may get bad,” he said, but Yuri knows what that means. People will die. Maybe people Otabek cares about. And in the midst of that, he’s worried about Yuri and the portal.
There are laws about contact with humans, and who can or cannot be allowed to cross the realms. Yuri’s been reading in secret, spiriting books away from Phichit’s tower, and he’s learned a lot about the operation of portals. But in the moment, seeing Otabek in need, he thinks fuck the law.
Quickly, Yuri reaches through the portal. All he wants is to provide comfort, to touch the smooth skin on the back of Otabek’s hand.
His fingers have barely breached the shimmer when he hears a shout.
“Yuri, get back!”
He spins around to see Victor, perched high up on the branch of a tree. Before Yuri can ask what the hell he’s doing, the portal flashes—brilliant and blinding white. It knocks him back, and he throws an arm up to shield his eyes.
And then it’s gone. No shimmer in the air. No view of an autumn evening. No Otabek. Only miles and miles more of fae forests.
Stunned, Yuri looks down at his hand, and he feels his eyes heat with threatening tears. Otabek is gone, without so much as “goodbye”, and so are the tips of Yuri’s first two fingers. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t bleed. It’s as if it was an old wound, already cauterized and scarred over, but his fingertips are simply—missing.
He scrambles to his feet as Victor alights soundlessly from the tree beside him. Before the silver-haired elf can get a word out, Yuri shoves him.
“You,” he hisses, “you were spying on me! For how long?” He waves his hand under Victor’s nose and watches the elf’s blue eyes widen. “Did you do this on purpose? Did you want to cripple me?”
“What?” Victor gasps. “Yuri, no. I was only trying to—”
Yuri shoves him again. The threat of tears is no longer a concern—he’s sobbing, his chest burning with anger at what’s been done. The fingers he lost are the same he would use to draw back a bowstring or steady his sword. After all his study, his practice—he’ll have to relearn everything. He can’t help but think Victor sabotaged him intentionally.
“Yuri—” Victor tries again, reaching for his hand, but Yuri doesn’t want to hear it. He turns around and runs, quick as he can. He doesn’t stop until he reaches the door of his home, and then he dashes through—right into the waiting arms of his grandfather.
“Oh, my boy,” Nicholai murmurs, holding Yuri tightly as he heaves tears and snot on his grandfather’s white shirt. “My little Yurachka, what did you do?” Yuri knows he doesn’t expect an answer, and he only burrows further into the comfort of his grandfather’s chest, feeling the same hands he’s always reached for as they stroke through his hair, soothing.
Yuri doesn’t have words yet to explain the whole thing, but he tries, pulling back to gather himself. He swallows his sobs, feeling the cool air follow the tear tracks down his cheeks. His grandfather cups his face with one hand, and he takes Yuri’s right hand in the other, looking down on the absent fingertips with sorrow in his eyes.
“Victor sent word ahead of you with his familiar. Yurachka...” he runs his thumb over Yuri’s hand, then tugs him into their home further. “Please come sit. We need to talk.”
His grandfather’s tone is so sad, so serious. It seems to command Yuri’s sobs to quiet. He still cries, but silently, as he takes a seat on the footstool of his grandfather’s arm chair. Nicholai never lets go of Yuri’s hand, tracing the veins and bones under his skin.
“Do you remember life in the human realm, Yura?” he asks. Yuri shakes his head. He doesn’t think about it often. He has dim memories of childhood—sunlight, laughter, and open arms—but he can’t place which of those are from the fae realm and which are from before.
Nicholai sighs, shaking his head. “Perhaps that’s for the best, though I do wish you remembered your parents more. You were so small still when we passed between worlds, and you weren’t even awake during the farewells.
“You were so sick. So sick, and so small.” His voice goes quiet, and he squeezes Yuri’s hands, Yuri squeezes back. “You had fallen ill quickly—first a cough, then a deadly fever, and soon you could barely even open your eyes. The medicine women, the physicians—no one saw any hope that you would live. And so, I knew the only choice was to bring you here.
“King Yakov owed me a favor, from the days when I was a young man myself, but to him it was the blink of an eye. He took us in without any protest, but it could only be us two. To save your life, we left the others behind.” His grandfather’s eyes begin to glisten with unshed tears, and he blinks them away.
“I have no true regret. Here you were healed. You can live a long and happy life in this realm, my Yura, and we have much time still together, but—” He holds both of Yuri’s hands up, compelling Yuri to meet his eyes and his expression firms. “You must never step through the worlds again.”
“What?” Yuri shakes his head, not comprehending. “Why not?”
“Time passes differently here,” his grandfather answers calmly. “You’ve seen some of that, I’m sure. In the few years we seem to have been in this realm, three hundred have passed in the human world.” Yuri’s arms fall limp. It’s as if he’s been clubbed in the head. “Your parents, your siblings—all gone. We’ll be long forgotten now. And if you step into that world ever again…”
Nicholai lifts Yuri’s right hand again, displaying the two fingers with their missing tips. “This is a preview,” he says. “It’s no fault of Victor’s. He was only trying to save you.”
For once in his life, Yuri has no words, and he feels no anger. He’s numb, startled. He can’t even begin to understand the magnitude of what happened—his mind struggles to embrace it. Instead, he distills it down to two points: his grandfather loves him so much that he sacrificed everything for Yuri to live, and Yuri will never see Otabek again.
New tears well in his eyes, and Yuri throws himself back into his grandfather’s arms, clutching him tightly. “I understand,” he murmurs as they hold each other. “Thank you. Thank you.”
Someday, Yuri may feel like trying archery again. He has options to modify his grip. He can find a way to compete without his dominant fingers, but right now it still hurts too much. Fencing, too, is a challenge. He’ll have to relearn to balance the foil.
But Yuri can’t be stopped so easily. In the following weeks, he focuses his attention on dance, where fingers are not at all needed, and his studiousness is rewarded—Queen Lilia herself pulls him aside at a ball, taking his chin in one hand to tilt his face toward better light. Her long nails leave imprints on his cheeks.
“You are clumsy, human boy,” she says, “but you have promise. I will make you something… more than what you are.”
For Yuri, who had simply been desperate for something to take his mind off his fingers, his past, and his lost friend, it’s an easy decision. Not just anyone can gain the favor of the Queen of Faerie, least of all a human.
Victor, apparently feeling some responsibility for Yuri’s circumstances, gifts Yuri a cat to keep him company in Otabek’s absence. Yuri calls her Potya. Although Yuri has no aptitude for magic, he’s informed that Potya comes from a long line of familiars, and it makes her smarter, more in tune with Yuri’s needs. They bond in an instant, and the cat goes with him everywhere from that day on—trotting at his heels or wrapped across his slim shoulders as she pleases.
She’s perched half on his head one day as he enters Queen Lilia’s courtyard for a lesson, but she hops down as soon as he sets foot on the soft white stones, out of respect. The queen glances up from the book she’s reading and nods to the cat. To Yuri, she only says, “Begin with third position,” and then snaps her fingers for her musicians to begin.
Yuri does as he’s told.
The soft harp and flute the queen favors is nothing like the sound of Otabek’s guitar, and yet it always reminds him of their time together, and the days when Yuri had danced for him. Eventually, Lilia will snap at him, and Yuri will have to give the dance his full attention, but in the beginning he allows his mind to wander, imagining what Otabek might think of his performance now.
Suddenly, Potya sits straight up on her cushion. She cries out, a low yowling that silences the musicians and draws every eye in the courtyard. And then—she bolts, dashing for the trees.
Calling her name, Yuri gives chase, leaping over the flower beds in the queen’s gardens and trampling the brush underfoot. He follows the cat’s trail, and the flag of her dark brown tail held straight up as she bounds through the forest.
When she stops, it’s to twine herself around the legs of someone else.
Yuri freezes. The man in the woods, kneeling down to pet Yuri’s cat, is taller. He’s broader in the shoulders than Yuri remembers, with a firm jaw, but the eagle eyes that flash up at Yuri are unquestionably the same.
“Yuri,” Otabek says, relief threaded through his voice. He even sounds older—tired, maybe—but none of that matters. Yuri can’t believe he’s here.
Otabek steps forward, hesitant, like he doesn’t know if Yuri’s going to want him there or not, and that thought breaks Yuri loose from the bonds of shock that had wound around his ankles. He runs at Otabek, and he throws himself into the other boy’s arms.
He’s not sure which of them looked up and which bent down, but their lips meet even as Yuri’s arms wind around Otabek’s neck, Otabek holding him up by the waist so his toes barely brush the ground. The kiss is brief, but vast, like a dozen broken pieces inside Yuri just clicked into place.
“What are you doing here?” Yuri asks, as soon as they can stand to have space to breathe between their bodies. “How?”
Otabek shrugs, as if the effort was no great feat. As if it were the obvious choice. “When you didn’t come back after the first few months, I knew there had to be a reason. I figured, our portal couldn’t be the only one, right? So I went looking. It took a few years, but—”
Yuri cuts him off with another kiss, his hands clutching Otabek’s shoulders so tight as to leave bruises, and Potya twines back and forth between them, rubbing her face on their ankles in turn, content in herself for knowing what her strange master needed most.
It’s hours before they return to the village, hand in hand, and Yuri can start to introduce Otabek to the others. It will be weeks before Otabek begins to feel at home in his new realm, and months before Yuri resumes archery and fencing at his side, and years before Otabek’s skills begin to catch up with Yuri’s, but weeks and months and years—those are human concepts. In the fae realm, there is only one perception of time—eternity—and that’s how long Yuri and Otabek now have together.